Things we talk about when we talk about The Chicks, who no longer are The Dixie Chicks.
We could start with talk of the quality of the songwriting here – zestful, plugged into at least three or four styles - one of which might possibly be called country; one of which is decidedly R&B – and pinging choruses like some pop machine, though this machine is more Los Angeles than Stockholm. This album bursts out.
We could also lead with the quality of the harmonies from sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer, and the punch of Natalie Maines upfront, leavened with subtle shadings more often these days, and finding control, strength and vulnerability in the album’s few quiet moments. They’re sounding powerful and in control, and their playing remains a match for that.
We could spend early time talking about the political/socially conscious decision to ditch their original name’s Confederate banner-waving element that tied them to a compromised past - their own and their country’s. Put it this way, with what is now a long-running commitment to social activism they’re not exactly welcome in part of Dixie, still, (“Half of you love me/Half already hate me”) and they’re pretty clear they are not asking to be let back in.
Their philosophy is played through here in the lowlight sparkle of angular violin/solid bass drum/moody delivery that is March March, which nods to Beyonce and Prince and effortlessly links #metoo, Black Lives Matter, reproductive rights, climate change, a Russian toady in the Oval Office and generational change in a call to stand for something and, yes, march for it.
But the elephant in the room - hell, the herd of stampeding pachyderms in the room – that can’t be ignored is the genesis of this album in one hell of an ugly breakup. The kind of breakup that saw Maines’ husband seek a court order to at least allow him to vet her lyrics, if not block her from using them - officially on the basis they had an NDA; unofficially, on the basis he was shit-scared of what she would say.
And boy was he right to worry.
If you thought Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks or Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear were hurt and hard. If you thought Phil Collins’ Face Value was bitter, Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… unflinching and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours frank, you’re about to be shown they can all be matched and then topped for brutal and direct.
There is little left to the imagination here. The evidence of an affair (Tights On The Boat), the lying and pretence that denied the obvious and made Maines doubt herself (Gaslighter, which also mentions what he did on that boat), the song asking him how do you live with yourself after doing this to someone, and your children (Sleep At Night), and the comparison of the initial spark that unknowingly was accompanied by the first lie when they met at a friend’s wedding, with the happiness of being alone and unburdened by him and that toxic relationship 20 years later at the same friend’s second, even happier, nuptials (My Best Friend’s Weddings).
To which you can add lines about him sending his mother in his place on a holiday with her, his easy entrée to Hollywood as a well-connected spouse, and asking “will your dad pay your taxes now that I am done?”. There’s recounting meeting the other woman before knowing she was the other woman: “Remember you brought her to our show at the Hollywood Bowl/She said ‘I love you I’m such a fan’/I joked that you can love me as long as you don’t love my man/There’s nothing funny about that”.
And then there’s blunt “You thought I wouldn’t see it if you put in my face/Give you all my money, you’ll gladly walk away/You think it’s justifiable, I think it’s pretty cruel/You know you lie best when you lie to you”.
You get the drift. That bloke isn’t walking out of here in once piece. (Though he should be grateful he got out in better shape than Earl.)
It’s not all recriminations and retributions though, and I don’t mean the album ending with a plea to “set me free”, in a plaintive, night time drift of an old time country song where we’re told “just because you’ve been a bad guy/I’ve seen it with my own eyes/There’s a good guy in there”.
As well as the ruminative, soul-leaning For Her, which looks for comfort in better intentions, in Young Man, an acoustic folk/country meditation that vocally looks back to very early Joni Mitchell, Maine addresses at least one of her sons whose “hero fell just as you came of age”, telling him that he’s going to be ok, advising him to “take the best parts” of his father “as your own life begins/Leave the bad news behind you”.
Meanwhile, the building-to-joy Julianna Calm Down comes proffering the kind of advice you’d want from a friend if you’re wavering, if you’re terrified about making the break (“Don’t give him the satisfaction that you can’t handle it”), giving you the strength for acts of defiance (“Just put on, put on, put on your best shoes/And strut the fuck around like you've got nothing to lose”) until the façade becomes true, and along the way repurposing one of those phrases often thrown at women to diminish (“And Violet calm down/And Juno calm down/And Yaya calm down/And Berta calm down/Hesper calm down”).
There’s even some kind of kindness to the ex in the idea that “if you’re gone, I hope it’s really worth it”, in Hope It’s Something Good, but the greater truth is a few lines hence in the same song as Mains sings “I learnt to hold my tongue/Now that you’re gone, I get to write this song”. Yep. Revenge served hot and heavy.
It wouldn’t be quite right to roll out the usual line at this point that none of these lyrics would matter much if the music didn’t hold up. Frankly, the sharp (and so very blunt) words, the power of a woman not taking shit and making no pretence about it, would make this album worth exploring on their own, and will earn it more than a few academic papers in more liberal faculties.
But it is nonetheless true that the immediate and long-term impact of Gaslighter comes from the fact these songs are so often very hard to say no to. And very very easy to welcome.
There’s the spring-loaded title track, with its insistent push and hard and shiny chorus, and the skipping Midwest blend of pop and R&B of Texas Man. There’s the way My Best Friend’s Wedding and the grander Everybody Loves You hold themselves in so that you hang on wanting to know if release is near, while Sleep At Night feels like an alternative Coldplay anthem for the terraces.
And, possibly the ultimate compliment, the way Set Me Free, with its hints of gospel, of George Jones and Lyle Lovett and Linda Ronstadt, feels like it might well have been written by Patty Griffin.
The judge who denied the ex-husband’s attempt to block this record did us all a favour.
SPOTIFY: Listen to The Chicks – Gaslighter